Fortieth President of the United States
Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, restored the American people's confidence in their country after a period marked by assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, double-digit inflation, the hostage crisis in Iran, and a series of failed presidencies. He changed long-held assumptions about the role the federal government should play in American life and in its economic affairs, reduced taxes and regulations, and slowed the growth of government spending and programs. (Some termed this approach "Reaganomics.") While Reagan's critics maintained that Americans did not equally share in the economic expansion that ensued during his presidency, under Reagan the nation experienced one of the longest periods of economic growth in its history. Reagan is also credited for ending the Cold War peacefully and on terms beneficial to the United States. Historians debate whether he "won" the Cold War, as his admirers claim, or simply accelerated a process that had been years in the making. Most agree, however, that he handled the Cold War's conclusion masterfully.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. Biographers credit Reagan's sunny disposition, optimism, love of reading, and dramatics to the influence of his mother, the former Nelle Wilson, a Protestant fundamentalist. They attribute Reagan's sense of humor, fondness for storytelling, interest in politics, and love of everything Irish to his Roman Catholic father, Jack Reagan. Ronnie was the second son born to the couple. He graduated from Eureka College in 1932 and briefly worked as a radio sports announcer.
In 1937, Reagan signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and over the next 15 years he appeared in more than 50 films. His most famous roles were the Notre Dame football star George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American (1940) and Drake McHugh in King's Row (1942). While Reagan never attained the superstar status of the "leading men" of his era (such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Clark Gable), he always had steady work. During World War II, Reagan was a second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps of the U.S. Cavalry. Declared unsuitable for combat because of poor eyesight, Reagan made recruitment, training, and propaganda films and participated in campaigns to sell war bonds. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of captain.
Known for his affable nature and keenly interested in the workings of the entertainment industry, Reagan was elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild in 1941. He served as the union's president from 1947 to 1952 and again from 1959 to 1960. In that position, Reagan perfected his negotiating skills as he worked to increase wages, broaden benefits, and provide better working conditions for union members. Reagan entered union politics at a time when Communist agents, loyal to Moscow, sought to infiltrate the motion picture industry. He resisted their attempts to pack meetings, shout down speakers, and intimidate union officials. In testimony before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Reagan maintained that Hollywood was better able than the government to keep its "own house" free of subversives.
With his movie career waning after World War II, Reagan made the transition into the then new medium of television as host of General Electric Theater. When not on camera, Reagan toured the country, promoting GE products and delivering pep talks to its employees. While on the lecture circuit, Reagan found his politics gradually shifting from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. He recalled in his memoirs that after he had reached the peak of his earning capacity (in what was then the 94 percent income tax bracket), he found that it was no longer profitable for him to accept additional work because he could only keep six cents out of every additional dollar he earned. This realization completed his political conversion into the ranks of the nascent post-World War II conservative movement.
In 1960, Reagan served as national chairman of "Democrats for Nixon." He officially switched his party registration to Republican in 1962. On October 27, 1964, Reagan made his national political debut on television. In a 28-minute paid political broadcast, he laid out the case why Barry Goldwater should be elected president. Although Goldwater lost to Pres. Lyndon Johnson in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history up to that point, Reagan's address, "A Time for Choosing," won universal acclaim as the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak campaign.
In 1966, Reagan ran for governor of California, and he defeated the incumbent governor, Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown, by almost one million votes, carrying 58 percent of the vote. His two major promises—to "send the welfare bums back to work" and "clean up the mess at Berkeley" (referring to the contemporary student demonstrations)—gave voice to two widely held opinions of the electorate.
Once in office, Reagan made balancing the budget and welfare reform his highest priorities. He accomplished the first through a 10 percent across-the-board cut in state spending, a hiring freeze, and, to the consternation of some conservatives, an increase in state income taxes. Working with the Democratic legislative leadership, Reagan reduced welfare rolls by tightening eligibility requirements, while also increasing assistance to the truly needy. As governor, Reagan fought to establish the Redwood National Park, opposed a measure that would have banned homosexual teachers from classrooms, and signed a law liberalizing abortion, an action he later said he had come to regret. As anticipated, he also had repeated run-ins with campus protestors and college administrators.
Reagan made his first stab at the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. Announcing his availability on the eve of the convention, he mustered only 182 votes against former vice president Richard Nixon and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. In order to blunt Reagan's appeal to conservatives, especially within Southern delegations, Nixon adopted a "Southern strategy." He pledged to "go slow" on civil rights and appoint conservative, "strict constructionist" judges.
Reagan was reelected governor in 1970, pulling in 53 percent of the vote against the Democratic candidate, Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh. Still, Reagan often found himself in conflicting roles, serving as a conservative spokesman on the one hand and as a party loyalist on the other. During Nixon's first term, Reagan had opposed many of the president's liberal-leaning economic policies. After Nixon declared his intention to visit the People's Republic of China (PRC), reversing a decades-old policy of refusing official recognition to the PRC, he recruited a skeptical Reagan to reassure conservatives that he had not gone back on American promises to defend Taiwan. (Formal diplomatic relations between the United States and China commenced during the Carter administration.)
After stepping down as governor in 1975, Reagan devoted increased attention to his role as conservative spokesman. He commenced a syndicated newspaper column, delivered five-minute radio commentaries, and returned to the lecture circuit. Doing much of his own writing, especially for the radio commentaries, Reagan took as his major themes issues with which he would be identified for the rest of his career, especially tax cuts and anticommunism. Convinced that the Soviet Union had taken advantage of American preoccupations with Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan became increasingly critical of the détente policies of presidents Nixon and Ford. He also opposed relinquishing American control of the Panama Canal, which proved a winning issue in the 1976 presidential primaries when Reagan challenged President Ford, who had become president after Nixon resigned, for the nomination.
Nonetheless, Ford edged out Reagan for the nomination by 117 votes. Ford's narrow loss to his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, and Ford's disinclination to seek the presidency again, made Reagan the instant frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination in 1980. After losing the Iowa caucuses to George H.W. Bush, Reagan sailed through the remaining primaries to an easy nomination.
In a hard-hitting campaign, Reagan kept his Republican base intact while attracting the votes of millions of voters who, like the candidate, had traditionally voted Democratic. He ran well among union and nonunion working households, Roman Catholics, Southern whites, and religious conservatives. This "Reagan coalition" would be a powerful force in American politics for more than a generation. With Bush as his running mate, Reagan handily defeated Pres. Jimmy Carter, winning 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter's 41 percent and third-party candidate John B. Anderson's 7 percent. In the Electoral College, Reagan trounced Carter, 489 to 49. Double-digit inflation, rising unemployment, high gasoline prices, energy shortages, and the prolonged hostage crisis in Iran all worked in Reagan's favor. He captured the mood of the country in his only debate with Carter, when he asked voters whether they were better off than they had been four years earlier. He said that as president his three major priorities would be to cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget.
In his inaugural address, Reagan outlined the direction he wished his administration to take. With 13 percent inflation and 7.5 percent unemployment (it would later peak at 10.8 percent), Reagan proclaimed that government was not the solution to the nation's ills, but rather the source of the problem. With the speech primarily focusing on domestic matters, commentators made less note of Reagan's bold assertion of his vision for the nation and its place in the world. "It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams," he said, adding, "We have every right to dream heroic dreams," picking up on a theme he had articulated in his campaign. In accepting his party's nomination, Reagan had quoted Thomas Paine's assertion, "We have it in our power to begin the world all over again." During the next eight years the nation and the world learn that Reagan intended to do nothing less.
Once in office, Reagan proposed cutting marginal income tax rates by 30 percent over three years. He argued that lower marginal tax rates would spur business investment and quicken economic growth. This, he said, would reduce unemployment and bolster the real income of average households. His efforts to enact his program stalled briefly as he recovered from an assassination attempt that nearly took his life. Reagan's ability to joke at his own misfortune, entreating his attending physicians to tell him they were "all Republicans," reassured a jittery nation, and conveyed a sense of his stamina.
Working with Congress, where the Republicans controlled the Senate by 7 votes and the Democrats controlled the House by 57 votes, Reagan steered to passage a measure that cut individual tax rates by 25 percent over four years, reduced taxes on capital gains, expanded tax incentives for business investment and retirement savings, indexed tax brackets for inflation, and reduced the windfall profit tax on oil companies enacted under the Carter administration. In response to Reagan's holding all of the House's 191 Republicans behind the plan and persuading 61 Democrats to vote for it, Democratic Speaker "Tip" O'Neill proclaimed Reagan's lobbying efforts the "greatest selling job" he had ever seen.
To curb inflation, Reagan, unlike his predecessors, proved willing to allow the Federal Reserve to pursue a "tight money policy," even if it meant a prolonged recession. He showed equal fortitude when he went through with an ultimatum he had given striking air traffic controllers to return to work or be terminated. The August 1981-November 1982 recession and the rising unemployment that accompanied it cost the Republicans dearly in the 1982 congressional elections. Reagan's popularity dropped to 39 percent. Yet Reagan's "stay the course" approach worked. Inflation dropped to 4 percent in 1983 and remained low for the rest of his presidency and well into those of his successors. At the same time, unemployment fell to 5 percent. By the end of his eight years in office, the U.S. economy had grown approximately 3.4 percent on average each year, resulting in the creation of 20 million new jobs. "I wonder why they don't call it 'Reaganomics' anymore," the president joked.
Reagan was criticized for large federal budget deficits and the resulting increase in federal debt. Reagan boosted defense outlays in both inflation-adjusted dollars and as a percent of GDP (gross domestic product). Combined with congressional reluctance to reduce domestic outlays after 1981, the federal deficit increased to 6 percent of GDP in 1983 before falling to 3.1 percent of GDP in 1988 as the economic expansion boosted federal revenue. Publicly held federal debt grew from $712 billion (33 percent of GDP) in 1980 to $2.1 trillion (52 percent of GDP) in 1988. While Reagan expressed disappointment at his failure to balance the budget, he viewed higher defense outlays as a short-term necessity that could be safely reduced once they achieved his intended foreign policy and defense objectives.
Early in his presidency, Reagan sent U.S. marines to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force to curb an ongoing civil war. When a terrorist attack in Beirut on October 23, 1983, took the lives of 241 U.S. service personnel, Reagan changed course and ordered the remaining U.S. forces to be removed. Two days after the tragedy, he sent American forces to depose a Marxist-Leninist government that had seized power in Grenada. Reagan maintained that he acted at the behest of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and out of concern for the security of the rest of the region and the safety of hundreds of American medical students at St. George's University. Three years later, after a terrorist bomb exploded in a Berlin discotheque, killing two American servicemen and injuring 230, including 50 American servicemen, Reagan, citing "irrefutable proof" that Libya was culpable, ordered a series of air attacks against that country.
Reagan's overall strategy toward military engagement was simple. He was prepared to act with overwhelming force to protect American interests, but he was unwilling to commit American troops to prolonged and poorly defined missions.
Buoyed by an expanding economy and a restored sense of national pride, and running on a theme of "Morning in America," Reagan won reelection by a wide margin in 1984. He and George H. W. Bush prevailed over the Democrats Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, winning 59 percent of the popular vote. In the Electoral College, Reagan prevailed by a margin of 525 to 13. Mondale carried only his native Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Reagan devoted the remainder of presidency to his major goal, pushing back the boundaries of Soviet influence without resorting to war. Buoyed by reports that the Soviet economy was in worse shape than was commonly believed, Reagan concluded that the Soviet Union could not sustain its then-current military outlays, let alone increase them to counter a U.S. build-up, with an emphasis on high-tech weaponry. Publicly, Reagan justified higher defense outlays on the grounds that the United States was dangerously close to losing its historic military superiority over the U.S.S.R. Privately, Reagan realized the Soviet Union would bankrupt its economy if it were to match this challenge. Reagan worked to weaken the Soviet economy on other fronts, such as when he pressed Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, driving down the price of the U.S.S.R.'s primary export.
Powerful rhetoric remained an important weapon in the arsenal Reagan had assembled against ideological adversaries. In 1982, before the British Parliament, Reagan sentenced Marxism-Leninism to the "ash heap" of history. To the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an "evil empire." He reassured skeptics that "the world would not end if an American president told the truth." Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union stayed frosty after the Soviet military downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing hundreds, including Rep. Larry McDonald (D-GA).
After the Soviet Union deployed medium-range missiles directed at Western Europe, Reagan, over the protests of the growing nuclear freeze movement, placed Pershing II and cruise missiles in West Germany. He astounded his critics when he maintained that the way to reduce the nuclear threat was by increasing U.S. arms. Few believed him when he said that his ultimate goal was a world free of nuclear weapons.
In 1985, Reagan found in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev someone who shared the president's view that the U.S.S.R. faced a choice between making accommodations to the West and economic ruin. While both agreed to reduce the number of intermediate-range nuclear weapons and allow inspections of nuclear sites ("trust, but verify"), Reagan refused to abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative he had proposed to act as an impenetrable shield against incoming missiles. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. A year later, Gorbachev unilaterally reduced Soviet conventional forces and promised to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe. As Reagan prepared to leave office, the Cold War was all but over. The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, declared that Reagan had won it "without firing a shot."
Reagan's presidency suffered a major jolt in November 1986 when the press reported that Reagan, in violation of a pledge not to negotiate with terrorists, had authorized the selling of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon. Proceeds from these sales, in violation of the expressed wish of Congress, found their way to anticommunist forces fighting to overthrow the Marxist government in Nicaragua. Officials at the National Security Council who ordered these actions later admitted to having destroyed documents detailing these transactions.
A commission Reagan named to investigate what became known as the "Iran-Contra Affair" faulted the president for not exercising appropriate oversight of his subordinates and for an overall sloppy management style. Reagan responded by reorganizing his White House team. Waiving "executive privilege," he allowed congressional and other investigators to peruse White House records. In an address to the nation, he assumed full responsibility for the episode. He said that he still did not believe that he had traded "arms for hostages," but that the evidence had persuaded him that he had.
Although he insisted that his many successes as president resulted not from his abilities as a communicator, but to the communication of "great things," Reagan made the most of his ability to persuade the public of the rightness of his cause. Strong public support, both at home and abroad, greatly enhanced Reagan's ability to move his program through Congress and pull foreign leaders his way. Among his many gifts as a communicator was his capacity to give voice to the sentiments of others. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Reagan echoed the nation's grief, saying that the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Standing before the "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" 40 years after the Normandy Invasion, Reagan spoke of common service and sacrifice: "We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny." In Berlin, Reagan's voice of defiance ("tear down this wall") was heard on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In his last public communication, when he revealed that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, Reagan bid a farewell filled with optimism and hope:
"In closing let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."
As Barack Obama, the nation's forty-fourth president, recognized, Ronald Reagan ranks among the major "transformational" presidents in American history. Like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, he reordered the nation's priorities, realigned its politics, and inspired a movement that remained influential for more than a generation after he left office. Reagan's lasting influence is threefold: he redefined the role of the federal government within the American political system, he rekindled the sense that a strong and assertive United States could be a force for good in the world, and, like John F. Kennedy, he inspired countless others to enter public life with the goal of picking up where he left off.
- President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. 1991. Reprint, New York: Public Affairs, 2000. .
- Early Reagan: The Rise to Power. New York: Morrow, 1987. .
- The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. .
- The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. .
- The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. New York: Forum Prima, 2001. .
- God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. New York: Regan Books, 2004. .
- The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. New York: Viking, 2009. .
- An American Life: The Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. .
- The Reagan Diaries, edited by . New York: HarperCollins, 2007. .
- Reagan in His Own Hand, edited by , , and . New York: The Free Press, 2001. .
- Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. .
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